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Empathy: College students don't have as much as they used to

Today’s college students are not as empathetic as college students of the 1980s and ’90s, a University of Michigan study shows. The study analyzes data on empathy among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years.”We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000,” said Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research. “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.”Konrath conducted the meta-analysis, combining the results of 72 different studies of American college students conducted between 1979 and 2009, with U-M graduate student Edward O’Brien and undergraduate student Courtney Hsing. Compared to college students of the late 1970s, the study found, college students today are less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”In a related but separate analysis, Konrath found that nationally representative samples of Americans see changes in other people’s kindness and helpfulness over a similar time period.”Many people see the current group of college students—sometimes called ‘Generation Me’—as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history,” said Konrath, who is also affiliated with the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry.”It’s not surprising that this growing emphasis on the self is accompanied by a corresponding devaluation of others,” O’Brien said.Why is empathy declining among young adults?Konrath and O’Brien suggest there could be several reasons, which they hope to explore in future research.”The increase in exposure to media during this time period could be one factor,” Konrath said. “Compared to 30 years ago, the average American now is exposed to three times as much nonwork-related information. In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games, and a growing body of research, including work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.”The recent rise of social media may also play a role in the drop in empathy, suggests O’Brien. “The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline,” he said.Add in the hyper-competitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success, borne of celebrity “reality shows,” and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy, he says. “College students today may be so busy worrying about themselves and their own issues that they don’t have time to spend empathizing with others, or at least perceive such time to be limited,” O’Brien said.The American Association of University Women provided support for the analysis.

Click here to test your level of empathy and compare how you scored to the average empathy level of college students.

Comments

  1. Fran Zorn

    I found your story and test for empathy to be quite interesting. I spend time with students who are interested in careers in the health professions trying to get them to undrstand the differences between sympathy and empathy. It is not an easy distinction for them to understand. I teach a reading and writing seminar in which I also try to get them to understand the plight of characters in the reading selections. Over the years I have found that had become more and more difficult.
    P.S. the words are sympathetic and empathic–not empathetic! School teachers never rest!

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  2. Daniel Faichney - 2005

    As one whose undergraduate career began after 2000, there’s no sense in comparing the scope of my experience to that of this study.
    However, I do firmly believe that members of recent graduating classes will learn and practice empathy to the greatest extent permitted and encouraged by the environment and individuals who surround them. In spite of the much-maligned video games and celebrity culture, the so-called so-called “Generation Me” is as capable and willing as previous generations to practice empathy – at least through volunteerism, if not in other forms. This generation invests at least as much time in voluntary work as previous generations did, and participation is, or at least recently has been, on the rise. While applications to paid national service programs reached record-breaking high levels during 2000-2010, thousands of smaller organizations have also benefited. We may credit a challenging labor market, and increasing incentives for volunteerism, for some of this participation. We might also observe that not all volunteerism stems from empathic tendencies. Yet I suggest that such work can be a powerful expression of empathy, and a major force in cultivating the same.
    Add to this the fact that the repertoire of life skills possessed by current college students will continue to develop over a lifetime. Opportunities to develop and practice empathy will eventuate at many junctures in life.
    From the standpoint of known information about social participation – not to mention human development – it might be a little premature to write off the emotional maturity of “Generation Me” just yet.
    Studies on volunteerism can be found here:
    http://www.nationalservice.gov/about/role_impact/performance_research.asp

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